President Japarov continues to consolidate power in Kyrgyzstan

By: Nick Mosher

On May 5th Kyrgyzstan’s President, Sadyr Japarov, approved troubling new constitutional amendments that will drastically increase the government’s ability to crack down on any opposition. These amendments were pushed forward by Kyrgyzstan’s caretaker parliament, which Human Rights Watch argues does not have the legitimacy required to initiate such changes: “The role of this outgoing parliament is not to rush in constitutional amendments, but to discharge essential governance functions in line with the rule of law until the will of the people is expressed in a free and fair election.” 

Using vague and malleable language, the new amendments expand the label of “extremist group” and bolster the government’s ability to prosecute these groups. This action severely threatens political opposition as well as human rights organizations within the country. The amendments will also allow for the criminal prosecution of any individual who donates to organizations deemed to be extremist.  

The Kyrgyz people approved these changes through a national referendum last month, reflecting a rise in nationalism across the country. This approval is likely due to a desire amongst the population for a stronger central government able to guarantee security within its borders after experiencing three popular uprisings resulting in the ousting of three presidents since 2005.  

President Japarov is closely tied to the rise of nationalism in Kyrgyzstan. Japarov and his nationalist party, Ata-Jurt (Homeland), first found success in 2010 by winning seats in parliament after taking advantage of the ethnic clashes leading up to the elections that year. Japarov would later be convicted of kidnapping after leading a protest for the nationalization of the Kumtor gold mine.   

President Japarov has already taken advantage of the vagueness of the current penal code to jail dissidents for speaking out against the new regime. In addition to the new amendments, in the coming weeks Kyrgyzstan’s provisional government will be releasing a draft for a renewal of the country’s entire criminal code, which many believe will reinforce the strength of the central government. With President Japarov consolidating his newfound power, the rise of nationalism in Kyrgyzstan seems well under way. 


“National-patriots” attack women’s rights rally in Kyrgyzstan

By: Lane Johansen

Hundreds of women’s rights activists took to the streets in Kyrgyzstan’s capital city, Bishkek, on April 14th to protest violence against women in Central Asia. A group of the campaigners were assaulted by dozens of national-patriots during the rally, police did not intervene. 

The demonstration was held in response to the recent murder of 27-year-old Aizada Kanatbekova, the latest victim in a long history of gender-based violence and non-consensual bride kidnapping in Kyrgyzstan. Protestors called on the government to do more to combat violence against women and police inaction in the country. 

During the April 14th protest, around 30 women’s rights activists were protesting outside the Interior Ministry headquarters, calling for Interior Minister Ulan Niyazbekov to step down, when several dozen men aggressively broke up their rally. Police did not stop the men attacking the protestors, but instead were “looking for any excuse to detain activists,” as a representative of the Bishkek-based feminist movement Zhetishet said after the rally. reported that these self-styled traditionalists, belonging to national-patriotic groups claiming to defend Kyrgyz tradition, justified their attack with the “false claim that the demonstrators had assembled to promote LGBT rights.” This same false claim of responding to pro-LGBT groups was used as justification for the group of masked men who assaulted participants in a women’s rights parade in Bishkek in March 2020.  

One of the national-patriots told a local reporter that “there is a danger in Kyrgyzstan that various kinds of Western values are being imposed on our young people,” reflecting the anxiety many Kyrgyz people feel about the potential erosion of Kyrgyz culture and tradition in the face of Western influence. As bride kidnapping is generally accepted as a Kyrgyz tradition, traditionalists consider attempts to end the practice to be a threat to Kyrgyzstan’s cultural identity.  

The history of bride kidnapping in Kyrgyzstan is disputed, but new research suggests non-consensual bride kidnapping was not common before the 20th century, discrediting claims of legitimizing the practice by pre-Soviet Kyrgyz tradition. Women’s rights activists have been fighting for years to challenge the claim of tradition, and the recent assault on protestors reveals the intense pushback they face.

Kyrgyz woman murdered in latest bride kidnapping tragedy

By: Lane Johansen

On April 5th, Aizada Kanatbekova was kidnapped, raped, and murdered in Kyrgyzstan’s capital city, Bishkek, sparking new protests over bride kidnapping and violence against women in Central Asia. Kanatbekova, 27, was taken in broad daylight off a central street in Bishkek. Her body was found in a car two days later with police later confirming she was strangled to death. 

Kanatbekova’s family reported that they had repeatedly pleaded with the police for help. Her abductor, Zamirbek Tenizbayev – who committed suicide after strangling Kanatbekova – had apparently stalked her for months. When Kanatbekova’s mother begged the police for help the day after her daughter was taken, the police laughed and told her she’d “soon be dancing at her daughter’s wedding,” an allusion to the practice of kidnapping with the intent of marriage. 

Bride kidnapping, locally known as ala kachuu (from the Kyrgyz phrase kyz ala kachuu, which means “to take a young woman and run away”), generally involves a man and several friends picking up a “bride-to-be”. It can refer to a range of actions from consensual, staged elopement to non-consensual abduction of a woman who has never met her kidnappers.   

Though bride kidnapping was outlawed in Kyrgyzstan in 2013, ala kachuuu is still widely practiced and generally involves coercion. The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe estimates that at least 12,000 young women, often younger than 18, are forcefully abducted and married each year in Kyrgyzstan, with as many as one out of five raped in the process.  

Kyrgyz society is traditional and patriarchal, particularly in rural areas, and the cultural stigma surrounding an unmarried woman spending a night outside of her family home perpetuates the practice of bride kidnapping; with the honor of the woman’s family at stake, she is often pressured by her own family members into consenting to the marriage. Additionally, incidents of ala kachuu are both underreported to and ignored by the police.     

Women’s rights activists in Kyrgyzstan are fighting to bring the taboo subject of bride kidnapping to the forefront of national discussion, emphasizing the domestic violence and psychological trauma that often results from forced marriages. Three days after Aizada Kanatbekova was murdered, hundreds of people gathered in front of Kyrgyzstan’s Interior Ministry to protest police inaction, the practice of ala kachuu, and the heartbreaking frequency of violence against women. 

Amnesty International redesignates Russian dissident Alexei Navalny a “prisoner of conscience”

By: Jackson Sharman

Amnesty International announced on May 7 that it was reapplying the “prisoner of conscience” label to Russian dissident Alexei Navalny

The human rights group removed the designation in February because of “concerns relating to discriminatory statements he made in 2007 and 2008 which may have constituted advocacy of hatred.”  

Specifically, critics of Navalny point to videos that contain disturbing imagery. In one, Navalny is dressed as a dentist and talks about how interethnic conflict in Russia is a cavity. He goes on to say fascism can only be prevented by deporting migrants from Russia.  

According to Leonid Volkov, who runs the political-organizing part of Navalny’s organization, Navalny regrets making the dentist video. But because he has never denounced his past statements, and left the videos up on the internet, accusations of ethno-nationalism cling to Navalny as he continues his fight against corruption in Russia.  

The Kremlin has made it a point of bringing up Navalny’s past statements in order to decrease his support both inside and outside of Russia. Amnesty International denied that both their initial decision and reversal were made due to outside pressure. They also apologized for their decision to strip Navalny of the label and condemned the Russian government’s treatment of him.  

Temporarily losing Amnesty International’s designation as a “prisoner of conscience” was not the only setback Navalny has faced in recent months.  

Earlier this week, Russia’s parliament adopted legislation that bans members of “extremist” organizations from being elected to political office. While Russian officials have denied that the law targets any group specifically, the bill will impact both Navalny’s political network, known as Navalny Headquarters, as well as the tens of thousands of Russians that have donated to his effort. 

In April, Russian officials added Navalny Headquarters to a database of terrorist organizations. Shortly after, members of Navalny’s political network announced they were shutting down their 40 regional offices.  

But Navalny said he would continue his fight. It is doubtful that the move will wipe out Navalny’s group, and his supporters will likely move their efforts underground. The proposed law is the latest in a series of measures that Russian President Vladimir Putin is taking to rid himself of Navalny and his supporters.  

Alexei Navalny ends 24-day hunger strike

By: Lane Johansen

Alexei Navalny announced on April 23rd that he was ending his 24-day hunger strike after he was permitted to see trusted independent doctors.  

The jailed Putin critic has been held in Penal Colony 2, one of Russia’s most infamous labor colonies, since early February. Navalny was poisoned by the Russian security service in late August 2020, then arrested in January upon his return to Moscow after spending five months recovering in Berlin.  

Throughout February and March, 44-year-old Navalny complained of severe back pain and numbness in his right leg, likely a result of a pinched nerve. He reported to his lawyers that, despite daily requests, he was denied access to a doctor of his choice and proper medicine. 

In response to these conditions, Navalny wrote a letter to the head of Penal Colony 2 on March 31 announcing a hunger strike demanding that the prison allow him to see an independent doctor. Navalny’s legal team shared images of these letters on Instagram, along with a caption that described how guards are torturing the opposition leader through sleep deprivation by waking him up 8 times a night. The team also said that Navalny had lost 8kg (18 pounds) in prison even before going on a hunger strike.  

Members of the independent Alliance of Doctors union gathered outside of the penal colony on April 6th demanding that Navalny be granted access to the doctor of his choice and the necessary medication. Russian police arrested nine of these physicians, including Dr. Anastasia Vasilyeva, the head of the Alliance of Doctors and one of Navalny’s doctors.  

The following week Navalny’s allies tweeted via his account that he had lost another 7 kg (15 pounds), meaning Navalny had lost a total of 33 pounds since arriving at the prison colony. They also reported that the prison administration was threatening to force-feed Navalny. 

Tens of thousands of protestors demanding the release of Navalny marched in demonstrations across Russia on April 21. At least 1,700 protestors were arrested that day, with about half the detentions made in St. Petersburg, where the BBC reported that police used electric batons and tasers. 

Two days later, Navalny’s legal team announced via his Instagram account that Navalny was ending his hunger strike. They noted that he had finally been granted access to independent doctors, who urged Navalny to end his hunger strike, warning “if it continues even a little longer, we will simply no longer have a patient to treat.” His doctors continue to raise concerns about heart problems or renal failure due to dangerously high levels of potassium in his blood.

Russian state police forces arrest 200 political opposition figures

By: Wes Culp

While raids against Russian political opposition organizations are not unheard of, the wholesale arrest of 200 opposition figures and municipal deputies at one conference is largely without precedent in the Putin era. The Interior Ministry justified the March 13 arrests at the Izmailovo Hotel on the basis of the supposed affiliation of the arrested with “undesirable organization” and the conference’s lack of adherence to COVID guidelines. The “undesirable organization” in question is “Open Russia” a political organization founded by the oligarch-turned-opposition-figure Mikhail Khodorkovsky to promote democracy and human rights. Following the arrest of these 200 opposition figures and deputies, the Interior Ministry and Investigative Committee conducted additional raids against leading coordinators of Open Russia and other groups affiliated with the organization. These actions follow the poisoning and arrest of Alexei Navalny, whose “smart voting” campaign ahead of the upcoming September 19 legislative elections has become a point of concern for President Putin and his United Russia party.

Recent legislative election opinion polling by the independent Levada Center found that United Russia enjoys the support of less than 30% of the electorate, indicating an ebb in support for the party and the regime with which it is affiliated. For some, the recent Open Russia arrests represent the growing anxiety within the Kremlin that the development of new opposition tactics mixed with waning support for United Russia could spell trouble for the regime in September. It is suspected that the arrests were supervised by the FSB, and were intended to signal that the regime is digging in its heels for the September election and any protests surrounding it. The months between now and September will test the ability of Russian opposition groups to organize and campaign for the September elections while under increased pressure from Putin’s regime.

As Kyrgyzstan’s economy struggles, the country falls victim to China’s debt trap diplomacy

By: Eli Bradley

As anti-China sentiment continues to foment in Central Asia, Kyrgyzstan finds itself in an increasingly difficult position to repay its debts to Beijing. Kyrgyzstan has one of the highest debt levels to China as a percentage of GDP in the world, owing over 25% of its GDP to its powerful neighbor. Kyrgyzstan is suffering from an economic downturn due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and the frustration of Kyrgyz citizens about dealings with a country that continues to imprison Uyghur minorities and ethnic Kyrgyz across the border is steadily growing.  

As a result of what is often referred to as “debt trap diplomacy,” Kyrgyzstan has few solutions for and minimal leverage in addressing its debt crisis. Recently elected President Sadyr Japarov talked of selling the Kyrgyz mining rights of the Jetim-Too iron deposit to relieve some of the country’s debts, and other lawmakers are considering surrendering partial ownership of the Kyrgyz energy sector to China. 

However, Japarov is being pushed on all sides of the issue, forced to navigate staying true to his nationalist campaign platform while working with China to pay down the debts left behind by the previous administration. Limited relief was negotiated in November of 2020 to defer some debt with 2% interest until 2022-2024, but China offers no broad relief or solutions for a country with a quickly contracting economy.  

Many details of past loans remain unknown to the public, but the Chinese contracts did stipulate that any legal settlements would be carried out in Chinese arbitration courts. This new jurisdiction has added to fears about China’s larger “salami slicing” strategy of performing small actions that are not enough to spark confrontation alone, but which eventually accumulate to a result that would be considered unlawful if carried out all at once. In this case, Kyrgyz sovereignty and foreign policy independence are increasingly subsumed by China. 

Anxious about raising tensions with Beijing, Kyrgyz government officials have tried to avoid mentioning the detention of Kyrgyz citizens in Chinese re-education camps; in December 2018, then-President Sooronbai Jeenbekov responded to questions about Chinese internment of ethnic Kyrgyz by stating that “Kyrgyzstan cannot interfere in the internal affairs of China.”  

With no solutions in sight, the Kyrgyz debt has served as a rallying cry for anti-China protests in the region and a warning about Chinese debt trap diplomacy.  

A briefing on China’s genocide of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang

By: Frances McDonough 

Earlier this month, the Newslines Institute for Strategy and Policy concluded in a report that the Chinese government “bears State responsibility for committing genocide against the Uyghurs in breach of the 1948 Genocide Convention.” The report is the first independent legal analysis of China’s mistreatment against the Uyghur population. Extensively citing leaked communications, witness testimonies, and open-source information gathering, the comprehensive verdict follows recent public denunciations from several governments, including the U.S.Canada, and the Netherlands

The Uyghur people are an ethnically-Turkish Muslim minority residing primarily in China’s Northwest Xinjiang region and numbering roughly 12 million in total. However, since 2014, almost 2 million Uyghurs have been held by the Chinese government in over 380 “re-education” camps located throughout Xinjiang. Although Chinese officials claim these camps are used for anti-extremist purposes, international experts liken them more to concentration camps intended to systematically erase Uyghur culture. 

According to this most recent report, detainees are banned from practicing Islam or studying Uyghur history and literature as they become unwillingly indoctrinated by the Chinese Communist Party. Uyghur men, women, and children in these camps are forced to learn Mandarin and allegedly face torture at the hands of guards should they refuse or be unable to do so.  

Going beyond indoctrination, previous reports revealed horrific details regarding China’s efforts to curb the Uyghur population as a whole. Children are regularly separated from families never to be seen again, Uyghur women face massive forced abortion and sterilization campaigns (as well as mass rape), and detainees are subjected to such frequent psychological and physical deprivation that suicide has become widespread (although the death toll within the camps is officially listed as “unknown”). 

In assessing claims of genocide against China, Yonah Diamond, one of over 50 experts who worked on the Newslines Institute report, noted a “common public misunderstanding” which narrowly equates the term “genocide” to mass murder. Instead, Diamond argues that to qualify as genocide, there simply must be “enough evidence to show that there is intent to destroy the group,” something he regards as indisputable considering the evidence analyzed in this case.  

Although the Chinese government continues to adamantly deny allegations, calling it “the lie of the century,” the report has sparked further public outrage which activists hope will prompt serious international repercussions in the near future. After the Biden administration imposed a preliminary set of sanctions against two Chinese officials in connection to the human rights abuses, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken stated, “[the U.S.] will continue to stand with our allies… in calling for an immediate end to [China’s] crimes and for justice for the many victims.” 

Prime Minister Janez Janša is slowly cracking down on free press in Slovenia

By: Nick Mosher

On March 5, the European Parliament convened to address the Slovenian government’s recent attacks on its own media. Journalists have suffered an onslaught of threats and online harassment by government officials and private citizens inspired by the rhetoric of Prime Minister Janez Janša, who has continuously criticized journalists and accused them of producing fake news.

The Slovenian government’s intrusion into free press in the country has not stopped at name-calling. Investigative journalist Lenar Kučić has reported that many media outlets in Slovenia are controlled either directly or indirectly by politicians, especially at the local level. Kučić claims that these politicians are using media outlets to promote their own public image and discredit journalist who speak out against them.

Prime Minister Janša’s most recent attack was a refusal to renew funding for the Slovenian Press Agency (SPA), one of the major media outlets in the country. While the government claims that this pulling of funds was simply because a new contract for 2021 had not been signed, many believe this is an attempt to bring down the agency. Some working for SPA believe funding will go instead to a new media outlet, the National Press Agency, which appears to have close ties to Janša’s party. Janša has also called for the resignation of SPA’s director, Bojan Veselinovic, for “unlawful activity” and accused him of being a “political tool of the extreme left.” 

Prime Minister Janša and Minister of Culture Vasko Simoniti initially agreed to attend the European Parliament’s hearing and answer questions about what they have claimed to be “absurd” accusations of media suppression. However, the leaders cancelled their visits beforehand with no clear explanation. The surge of media suppression began when Janša took power in March of last year and will likely continue as he hopes to consolidate control of Slovenian media before beginning his tenure this July as the President of the Council of the European Union.

Baby trafficking persists in Uzbekistan as the country looks to reform

By: Lane Johansen

Uzbekistan has long held the reputation as one of the worst human rights abusers in the world. Since his election in 2016, President Shavkat Mirziyoyev has sought to change this reputation, enacting numerous reforms to improve the country’s human rights record. Addressing the UN Human Rights Council on February 22, 2021, Mirziyoyev stated that “ensuring fundamental human rights and freedoms shall remain central in reforming Uzbekistan.” 

On July 31, 2019, Mirziyoyev issued a presidential decree establishing the National Commission for Combating Human Trafficking and Forced Labor. In 2020, Uzbekistan adopted several laws designed to prevent human trafficking, including the “strengthening of measures of responsibility for child and forced labor.” In general, this legislation has effectively combatted the prevalence of human trafficking in Uzbekistan: in 2020, the Interior Ministry recorded 74 cases of human trafficking, down from 123 cases in 2018 and 574 cases in 2012.  

While the number of human trafficking–related crimes has decreased significantly, the share of baby trafficking continues to rise and remains a serious problem in Uzbekistan.  In January 2021, the Interior Ministry reported that 185 newborns were sold over the past four years. In a surprisingly candid acknowledgement of the Uzbek government’s weak oversight capabilities, Tanzil Narbayeva, the head of the Senate and chairwoman of the human trafficking commission, remarked that there is no unity between government agencies in the fight against child trafficking and that penalties for such crimes remain far too low.  

Narbayeva specified the primary reasons for baby trafficking in Uzbekistan: of the women who sold their children, 17% did so to hide the child from their parents, 31% because of a difficult social situation, and 52% for financial gain. Interior Ministry representative Nargiza Khojiboyeva noted that the majority of babies are sold by unmarried girls and emphasized the social vulnerability of and lack of material support for these mothers.  

Uzbekistan remained on the Tier 2 Watch List of the US State Department 2020 Trafficking in Persons Report for the third year in a row, narrowly avoiding a downgrade to Tier 3. The report contains recommendations for further reforms to effectively combat human trafficking in Uzbekistan. If President Mirziyoyev hopes to keep his promise to ensure that human rights and freedom remain central to reform, he must strengthen efforts to eliminate trafficking in Uzbekistan – including addressing the underlying social issues partially responsible for the persistence of baby trafficking in the country.